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Across the Pond

On Valentine’s Day, he has history on his side

DUBLIN — My wife will either shrug her shoulders or come looking for me with a rolling pin for what I’m about to say in respect to Valentine’s Day, but here goes: What’s love got to do with it?

I’m with Tina Turner on this topic. You may think that a box of chocolates or a bouquet of flowers is a symbol of your indisputable love for a significant other. In reality, though, both are simply elaborate get-out-of-jail cards for use at a later date in your relationship.

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Before I’m exiled to a spare bedroom, let me explain my thinking here. The way I see it, what we celebrate as “love” is a composite of several different qualities, such as respect, admiration, affection, and pride, which we extend to our partners as often as we can.

Of course, maybe it’s just a male thing, this rigorous analysis of an emotion covered so sympathetically in literature and song. Although in matters of the heart I’d be reluctant to take my cue from E.L. James or Justin Bieber.

As they usually do, the wise and wonderful Romans have something to tell us on this subject. It is believed the early Christian church may have placed the feast day of St. Valentine in the middle of February to legitimize the pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia, which was overseen by an order of Roman priests, the Luperci, and featured some ritual animal sacrifice. (Thankfully, most couples now restrict this Valentine’s Day custom to a fancy dinner out.)

According to legend, the Lupercalia festival also involved all young women in Rome placing their names in a big urn. The bachelors reached in, chose a name, and became paired for the year with the woman selected. These matches, we’re told, often resulted in marriage and children. (It isn’t known whether you were allowed to return a name to the urn. “Claudia Maxima, no way. Her dad’s a Centurion. The last guy to date her got shipped off to Gaul!”)

So the Romans would seem to support my interpretation of Valentine’s Day. Yes, it’s an occasion of sublime emotion, but there are long-term goals to be achieved as well.

As for the trappings of the day — cards and chocolates and such — these have more recent origins. According to the History Channel website, “By the middle of the 18th century, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes.”

Around 1900, however, improved printing technology allowed people to outsource their feelings to ready-made cards. Plus, cheaper postal rates meant people didn’t need to hand-deliver their valentines and then hang around awkwardly to see whether they got opened. (Or worse, whether the recipient laughed hysterically at the gesture.)

But it was too late even then. By the 1840s, the occasion already had spiraled out of control thanks to Esther A. Howland, who became known as the “Mother of the Valentine” for her elaborate creations adorned with lace, ribbons, and colorful pictures. Due in large part to Howland’s pioneering holiday products, the Greeting Card Association estimates that 1 billion valentines are dispatched worldwide each year. Only at Christmas are more cards sent, about 2.6 billion. (By the way, if you’re still waiting for my Yuletide greetings, forget it: I abstained in 2012.)

But the most damning statistic of all, if you’re male: Women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines. (Of course, this is only because there are no cards left by 8 p.m. on Feb. 14, which is when most guys finally wake up to what day it is.)

So did I alter my traditional approach to the holiday this year? You bet. Despite the fact that I have history — and Tina Turner — on my side, I bought my Valentine’s Day card back in January.

Medford native Steve Coronella has lived in Ireland since 1992. He is the author of “This Thought’s On Me: A Boston Guy Reflects on Leaving the Hub, Becoming a Dub & Other Topics.” He can be reached at sbcoro@eircom.net.
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